He was, he told us, a simple soldier,
always obeyed his commander,
looked out for his men.
“A soldier does that,” he said.
He never told us –
about the mine that went off
and the man left behind.
He never told us – –
how he crawled across that mine field
to retrieve his man and carry him out.
He never told us,
about the cost
of what a simple soldier does.
It’s an easy trap for young writers. It’s easy to diagnose but much more difficult to treat. The problem is overwriting. Many people fall into this trap in writing graduate programs. This literary world they enter convinces them they are the next Faulkner or Hemingway, and they proceed to write in a way that is – in most cases – the antithesis of what those writers were all about. Especially in the case of Hemingway, a known minimalist.
When a reader reads a piece of prose, they should be suspended into the world of that piece. This requires that they forget that it’s writing. They must forget that behind it exists a writer. All that should exist for the reader is the world created in the words on the page. Look at the Harry Potter phenomenon. Most people in the first few years couldn’t tell you who wrote the books because the important thing was Harry and his friends, not J.K. Rowling.
Unfortunately, when a writer injects too much into the piece, it is no longer about the prose but about the artist. At that point, the writer is in danger of over writing. Things to watch for:
Too much reliance on a thesaurus. It is an excellent tool and a writer should make efficient use of it and a dictionary. However, using words you’re barely familiar with in prose is dangerous. Using a lot of them is asking for trouble. Always apply (as you would salt) with a light touch.
Over research: I call this the Dan Brown effect. It’s nice that he wants his wife’s hard work to get attention, but less than 1/4 of the research a novelist does should actually end up in the pages of the book. There’s nothing worse than being in the height of a great read and suddenly bogged down by history of no interest to you and little relevance to the story.
Think of the composer. Each note is specifically chosen, but it is more than choice. The arrangement of those notes is key to the piece being a hit or a miss. It’s the same with prose. It’s not simply the words that you choose but how you assemble them. In what order and the resulting rhythm will make a difference in whether you have Harry Potter or a novel in a file drawer. Whether you write fiction or non fiction, the craft is the same. Each word like each note must be carefully orchestrated to bring your music into key. After all you want the audience to listen, not turn a deaf ear.
Everyone has heard the oft-repeated advice show, don’t tell. I am a proponent of this advice…however…like all pieces of advice do not accept it as gospel. As a writer you must understand that there are times when you need to “tell” your reader something rather than drag it out by showing. If you need evidence of this, think of a novel you read that was 500 pages, and you realized it should have been 250. We’ve all read those books where it was apparent someone thought they had to show everything, and not only does the story drag as a result but the story is often lost in all that rhetoric.
If a scene is important to moving a story forward, then you should show the reader what happens. However, if the reader merely needs to know that something took place to understand a current narrative thread, then update the reader through telling. Another problem with showing and telling can be doing both. Not trusting the reader to get the picture you’ve created so you tell after you’ve shown.
Nancy’s jaw locked and her eyes narrowed. She leaned into his personal space making sure he felt the need to back up. She pressed her finger into his chest and leveled him. “Never, never cross me again.” Nancy was beyond angry.
The comment Nancy was angry is unnecessary and is a case of the writer telling the reader after they have already shown the read that Nancy is pretty pissed off. Trust the reader. If you are showing them what is happening in the story, that’s all the lead they’ll need.
Writing is not easy and yet everyone I meet says, “I’d like to write a book.” Or they have an idea for a book or they always thought they’d write a book, etc. Usually what they mean is they like the “idea” of writing a book. The reality is just not as fun. Frankly, the only thing I find harder work than writing is parenting. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the process or that I’m not passionate about it, I am. However, it is a craft that requires due diligence to use an overworked phrase.
A first draft of a paper is solely for the eyes of the writer. Reread that, please. Many students don’t understand that. Many writers don’t understand that. Our world has far too many first drafts. The sign in a window that has misspellings or the billboard beside the highway with egregious errors in huge letters. Or my all time favorite: close captioning that has more errors in it than a major league ballgame. Those writers didn’t glance over their drafts a second time, and they should have. For most, it’s not worth the extra work.
Only the writer should see a first draft so when a student turns in a first draft in class, it should technically be their second draft. A draft they’ve written, run spell check on, reread, corrected glaring errors on, and then submitted. Unfortunately, as a professor, I see second drafts that look like a twin of the first, a third that looks like the second, and so on. There is no purpose to turning in the same draft multiple times. It’s like submitting the same pie three times in a contest. It’s not going to taste any better the second or third time. As a writer, the student isn’t going to see any growth without putting in the hard work on all drafts.
Writing is about detail, essence. It’s about the minutiae. It’s mired in style and voice and structure. No one will get there in one draft. Shakespeare didn’t. Stephen King doesn’t. Certainly, a student writer won’t. No one expects you to. Just know that you have to put in the hard work to get to that point where the work exceeds your expectations and mine. That’s what you’re working towards. Keep that goal in sight and forge ahead.
He was late. It was typical. No one said anything but they all thought it. He came in the door ready to pick a fight. Also typical. No one wanted to oblige him. The furniture was mildly abused. He picked his way through the crowd until he found the woman he was looking for. That’s when the real trouble began.
The above passage is an example of writing that says little. We begin with a pronoun. Who is he? The reader doesn’t know. Poor form. Never begin generically. So, let’s give “he” a name. Andy. Now, Andy was late is passive structure and again pretty generic. It’s followed by the bit of information that it was typical of him. So, perhaps you could rid yourself of one by saying; Typically, Andy was late. This way you’re down to one passive sentence. Or you can banish the passive voice entirely by saying; Typically, Andy sauntered in ten minutes late. Now, we’ve given the reader specifics: ten minutes, and a strong verb replaces was. Sauntered also, indicates a lack of concern for rules of polite society like being on time.
Rewrite the rest of the paragraph doing what I have done here. Trying to replace weak passive structure and insterting specific details where they are lacking. This is the assigned blog entry this week.
It used to be so simple. Fiction was made up and non fiction was fact. Then along came this crazy thing called creative non fiction. Now there’s an oxymoron if I ever heard one. How can something be made up or embellished and factual at the same time? It’s not easy; just ask James Frey who got crucified for his embellished memoir. Okay, maybe that isn’t a strong enough word, because it turned out to be more fiction than non fiction.
What brought about creative non fiction anyway? I have my own theory about this. We have become ADD in this world of instant gratification and techno fast food delivery of information world. Part of this has made us very impatient with the written word. We want more for less, and we want to be entertained even while educated. Thus, when we open a newspaper – standard non fiction fare – we want to see more white space than text and LOTS of pictures, please. In fact, make that newspaper look like a web page, and we’ll be much happier. Forget the inverted pyramid, give me bullets.
Whatever you do, don’t hand me a text-book with the standard non fiction snooze fest of prose. I’m a student of a new millennia, and I want those words to leap off the page and excite me. I don’t care if the topic is as boring as dishwater, make me think it’s the latest edition of Harry Potter.
No pressure at all for writers. Especially students writers thrown into an academic world where they must learn, think, write, and now entertain. What’s a student to do? Pray for the next JK Rowlings as a classmate? No, read. Read everything out there and make note of what works and what doesn’t. Adopt the best things you find and beware of the worst. Then, practice.
Did I mention, practice?
For as long as I can remember the fall of the year was a time I looked forward to with a sense of excitement. As a kid I became almost giddy as the school year approached. I loved learning and all the tools of the process. I’d pick out my supplies with all the attention to detail of a wedding planner. I’d have my back pack organized and ready to go a week in advance. I was a nerd. A nerd full of hope for the new school year ahead of me.
I knew at an early age I wanted to write. I also knew that it wasn’t an occupation that was easy to make a living at. So, I looked around for occupations of interest and landed on photojournalism. Hey, it was the 60’s. The first televised war. I also loved school, and I really liked teachers. When it became apparent to me that I didn’t have the heart (or should I sake lack of) for journalism, it was a natural turn for me to education. The idea of spending the rest of my life going to school? Totally acceptable.
Now, each fall I wander the aisles admiring the school supplies and prepping for another year of teaching and learning. This school year will open differently. No longer teaching FT so I can focus on my writing and caring for my dad, I am enjoying even more the little rituals of the new school year.